Youngstown Earthquake and Fracking: Is There a Connection?

A 4.0 earthquake in the Youngstown, OH area on Saturday afternoon is thought to be connected to a local injection well. MDN has chronicled previous episodes of earthquakes thought to be connected with injection wells in Arkansas and Texas. Saturday’s earthquake was the 11th in the Youngstown area in recent months, and by far the strongest. The theory is that fluid, which is pumped nearly two miles underground under very high pressure, had migrated to a nearby fault and is causing the fault to shift.

Until it can be determined what, exactly, is happening, all further injection of fluid into the well has been stopped. In fact, fluid injection had stopped a day earlier, on Friday, before Saturday’s quake. But pressure in the well would remain high for a period of time, likely leading to the 4.0 quake.

An official in Ohio said on Sunday that the underground disposal of wastewater from natural-gas drilling operations would remain halted in the Youngstown area until scientists could analyze data from the most recent of a string of earthquakes there.

The latest quake, the 11th since mid-March, occurred Saturday afternoon and with a magnitude of 4.0 was the strongest yet. Like the others, it was centered near a well that has been used for the disposal of millions of gallons of brine and other waste liquids produced at natural-gas wells, mostly in Pennsylvania.

The waste, from the process called hydraulic fracturing that is used to unlock the gas from shale rock, had been injected under pressure into the well, which is 9,200 feet deep. Scientists had suspected that some of the wastewater might have migrated into deeper rock formations, allowing an ancient fault to slip. Similar links between disposal wells and earthquakes have been suspected in Arkansas and Texas.

Andy Ware, deputy director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which regulates gas drilling and disposal wells, said the state asked on Friday that injection at the well be halted after analysis of the 10th earthquake, a 2.7-magnitude temblor on Dec. 24, showed that it occurred less than 2,000 feet below the well. Because of a lack of data, depth estimates of earlier earthquakes had been far less precise.(1)

The distressing outcome of such episodes is how the media and those opposed to drilling demagogue the story with announcements that “fracking leads to earthquakes.”

What makes this earthquake interesting is that it also shakes up the fracas over fracking, a process that extracts natural gas and oil from deep under the ground by using a toxic cocktail of liquids under high pressure.

One State Representative said he thinks there is a connection between the area’s earthquakes and drilling for natural gas. Robert Hagan, a Democrat who has taken on Gov. John Kasich on fracking and other issues, said he asked the U.S. EPA to intervene because of the possibility of another quake. "My suspicion is that fracking injection wells are to blame," Hagan told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.(2)

Let’s be plain: Injection wells are not fracked wells. Rep. Hagan’s statement is confusing at best. Injection wells are vertical wells built to handle the disposal of nasty fluids, they are licensed and regulated by the federal government, and they’ve been around for decades, being used for many other kinds of waste fluids, not just fluids from natural gas drilling.

The connection between fracking and earthquakes, if you want to make one, is that nowadays injection wells are used to dispose of shale gas fracking fluids—the fluid left over after pumping water, sand and some chemicals into the ground to force apart shale rock to release methane gas. Some drillers recycle 100 percent of the wastewater fluids for further re-use. Some drillers dispose of it in regulated water treatment facilities. And some dispose of it by trucking it to injection wells, like the one near Youngstown. But those injection wells accept fluids from a variety of industries, not just the shale gas drilling industry.

If injection wells are built near geologic faults, they should not be used. Not all injection wells are faulty or lead to earthquakes—but it certainly appears that some of them do. So stop using them!

Bottom line: Fracking does not cause earthquakes, something you won’t read about in the mainstream media.

(1) New York Times (Jan 1, 2012) – Disposal Halted at Well After New Quake in Ohio

(2) (Jan 1, 2012) – Ohio’s 4.0 earthquake shakes up fracas over fracking